CANBERRA, Australia -- Best-selling Australian author Bryce Courtenay, whose first and final books drew on his tough early-life experiences in Africa, has died of stomach cancer. He was 79.

He started writing in midlife and called his first novels "practice books," but his debut was a success. "The Power of One" was published in 1989, translated into 12 languages and became a hit movie.

"I was absolutely staggered when somebody wanted to publish it in the first place," Courtenay said in his official biography released by Penguin. "Now its worldwide success and the fact that it's available in 12 languages still amazes me," he said. It became a movie starring Morgan Freeman.

His publisher Penguin Group said Friday that Courtenay died at his home in the Australian capital Canberra late Thursday, surrounded by family and pets.

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His 21st novel, "Jack of Diamonds," was published Nov. 12 and included a moving epilogue to his readers.

"It's been a privilege to write for you and to have you accept me as a storyteller in your lives," he wrote. "Now, as my story draws to an end, may I say only, 'Thank you. You have been simply wonderful.' "-- AP